Motoring journalist Peter Franzen says the BBC show's glory days are over

Once again, the BBC’s Top Gear programme has dark clouds hanging over its future after production was halted when presenter Andrew "Freddie" Flintoff was hurt in an accident while filming.

The money-spinning programme has been one of the BBC’s highest earning programmes for the last 20 years, with episodes also broadcast internationally in many countries in Europe, North America, South-east Asia and more, making it the most widely broadcast, factual television programme in the world.

A celebrity chef once said to me that cooking was an art but baking was chemistry. And that might equally be applied to Top Gear.

It was the chemistry between Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May that made the ingredients of the show so appetising across the globe.

The original programme ran from 1977, and was a middle of the road, factual motoring magazine that finally ran out of fuel in 2001.

To his credit, Clarkson came up with the idea to transform it into “entertainment” with stunts, humour (often controversial), star guests and exotic “dream” cars.

Clarkson was a leader of the “gang of three”, and their exploits and inter-actions made great TV, even though it was colleague Richard Hammond that took on the mantle of Danger Man and almost lost his life in the process.

The BBC was criticised by the health and safety watchdog after an investigation uncovered failings.

There were other near misses. In 2008, Clarkson injured an ankle and, in his words, "dislocated his head from his spine".

There were broken bones, slipped discs and sore heads over the years, but mercifully never anything more serious.

It was in the mid-1980s that I first ran into Clarkson at the launch of the Rover 800 in the south of France. He was a boorish “TV personality”, who thought everything should revolve around him and his production crew.

Not surprising then, that his boorish attitude dogged his TV career despite the great success of Top Gear, eventually leading to the BBC dropping him from the programme in 2015.

Clarkson was suspended and then fired by the BBC after a fracas when he punched Top Gear producer Oisin Tymon. The incident occurred after Clarkson was told there was no hot food available after a day of filming.

His dismissal from Top Gear prompted the departure of Hammond and May, who then joined Clarkson in forming a new motoring series, The Grand Tour on Amazon Prime.

But tough though it is to admit, Top Gear has never been as good or entertaining since the trio quit. The chemistry was gone.

Others were appointed as hosts for the programme, including Chris Evans and Matt LeBlanc.

After negative feedback on his series, Evans resigned from the programme.
LeBlanc and his co-presenters also failed to reignite the flame, but the current trio of Andrew Flintoff, Paddy McGuinness and Chris Harris looked as though it was starting to capture the old magic, but Flintoff’s latest accident has brought the show to an abrupt halt.

And now a carefully worded statement from Top Gear suggests the matter may be far from over.

It does not elaborate on the conclusion of a BBC Studios’ investigation, but the programme has issued an apology to Flintoff and says it "will continue to support him with his recovery".

A wider health and safety review of the whole programme led by an independent third party will follow, and the statement refrains from saying Top Gear will be back on screen, at least any time soon.

Top Gear is very expensive to produce, although this is offset by its earnings. So, I wonder if BBC bosses might consign it to the scrapyard, because the stunts that win the audiences are just too dangerous to continue.

Plus, the money from royalties would continue to roll in.

It is a tough call for the BBC, and it seems in no hurry to confirm to fans the show will go on. Perhaps it is time to park it for good. 

Instead, some of the money could be used to save the ailing regional BBC Look East programme.

It has gone to the dogs since cuts saw the end of the east/west split broadcasting content - and we are expected to be interested in “local” news from Bedford, Essex and Northampton.

But as Jeremy Clarkson might say: “If you believe that you are bonkers”.

For once he would be right.